In mid-March of 2020, the uncertainty of the markets, not to mention an entire world preparing to take on a pandemic, presented a number of unique questions for companies in how to plan for, and be ready to respond to, the broad-ranging impacts from the pandemic, from the macroeconomic and market impacts to the day-to-day operational ones.
Companies that had made projections with respect to cash outlays or expenditures at the end of the prior year were now facing a very different world with many more variables to account for. Northrop Grumman, like other companies, reevaluated its cash requirements and took steps to better enable the company to preserve financial flexibility in a very uncertain and unprecedented time.
Luckily, Northrop Grumman had a team ready to pivot to support the company in achieving that financial flexibility. Corporate Director and Assistant General Counsel Susie Choung works best when faced with high-priority projects with tight deadlines. She triple-majored in philosophy, political science, and economics at Northwestern University, and was always one to say, “I can take on more.” Her work style today is much the same: she thrives on taking on a lot of projects at once.
“I’ve found that when I’m busier, I do better,” the attorney explains. “Even in college, the quarters when I had the lightest workload were the ones where I struggled to keep up momentum and stay focused. And the quarters where I loaded up on classes, I ended up getting the best grades in those quarters. It might seem like a strange strategy or effect, but juggling a lot of different things helps me stay focused and engaged.”
In this case, Northrop Grumman made a quick decision to raise additional capital through an offering. This could help the company weather the choppy economic waters of the pandemic, however long it might last, among other things. One of the challenges, however, was how many other companies were planning to execute on a similar idea.
“I remember getting a call about doing a financing transaction and launching within a week,” Choung recalls. “We knew other companies were starting to go out there and raise capital, and we wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to get into the market quickly, in case that window of opportunity closed.”
The highlights of Choung’s career are always remembered with the same word: blur. Pre-pandemic: underwriters, counsel, and other parties would come to the office to review documents and run due diligence together in a data room. When documents required signatures, you obtained and delivered “wet” originals.
This simply wasn’t possible after the corporate office went to a fully remote schedule for an undetermined period of time. Northrop had to conduct the entire transaction remotely.
“We had not established a virtual data room for any of our financing transactions in the past,” the lawyer says. “We had to make sure the vendor and the data room platform met our security requirements. And we had to make sure our team was comfortable with using and navigating the systems. And we had the added pressure of working in a compressed time frame.”
Choung’s previous experience, eleven years of extensive M&A work, was essential to the process. The lawyer says the pace of the project perfectly aligned with her own style. The need for laser focus and execution, the adrenaline of working on a tight timeline, and the knowledge that an end date was in sight created that perfect blur where Choung works best.
The deal went through without an issue. It helped lay the groundwork for getting other projects done remotely that have continued to pay off as the pandemic pressed on. It’s not the first big deal Choung’s done at Northrop, and it won’t be the last.
One Year, $9 Billion
The attorney spent the better part of a year from 2017-2018 transitioning to taking on most of the SEC compliance work after another attorney moved to a new role. It essentially meant that Choung was working two jobs concurrently. And added to that pressure, Northrop was in the process of acquiring Orbital ATK, another aerospace and defense company with approximately fourteen thousand employees, for $9 billion.
Yet again, the overwhelming nature of the work was Choung’s bread and butter. “While I was doing the work of two, I then had to make time to support this strategic M&A transaction, which was high priority with a very demanding timetable,” the attorney says. “There were several times when these different projects, deadlines, and priorities converged, and it was really my energizer. There’s no time to overthink things, no time for stress. You just take all of that intensity and you put it to work to get the job done.” If only we all reacted this way to an avalanche of challenge.
The deal played out over the course of the year, and while Choung is hard-pressed to remember the details, her pride is evident. It was a key transaction for Northrop, and the lawyer was able to see it through from the beginning to the closing and afterwards through the integration of Orbital ATK.
Looking ahead, Choung has continued to take on new roles and responsibilities.
“I think I have a bias to say yes to things,” the attorney says, laughing. “Even if I haven’t done it before, I think that’s part of growing and learning. I like to make the most of an opportunity and not leave anything on the table. There’s almost always something to be gained from a new experience and keeping that perspective makes even the most challenging projects worthwhile.”
Embracing Diversity Through Genuine Connection
As an attorney and woman of color, Susie Choung says that her approach to diversity and inclusion plays out in the depth of relationships she works to build with her team and across the organization.
“It’s important to get to know your colleagues beyond the work and to learn about their life experiences,” the attorney says. “Diversity and inclusion is not just about training courses and progressive recruiting and hiring practices—those are a given—it’s about taking the time to get to know people and celebrating their successes and supporting them in their hardships. You don’t ever want to feel like you’re a box to check. You want to feel seen, valued, and respected. For me, that’s meant putting the time into building those relationships with people and eventually having challenging or tough conversations, but in a safe and trusted space.”